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How Seema Punia overcame tough times in Russia in quest for another medal

The 37-year-old, who trains in Russia, tested positive for Covid, spent long hours in solitude and fought mental battles. But she never gave up though she was in a foreign land.

Written by Andrew Amsan | New Delhi |
Updated: March 31, 2021 3:25:47 pm
Seema PuniaSeema has named the athlete in her letter but The Indian Express isn’t identifying her to protect her privacy.(Source: PTI)

Over the past year, four-time Commonwealth Games medal-winning discus thrower Seema Punia has been through hell and back. The 37-year-old, who trains in Russia, tested positive for Covid, spent long hours in solitude and fought mental battles. But she never gave up though she was in a foreign land. The Haryana born athlete says she took solace in yoga, meditation and Osho’s philosophy to pull through testing times.

“It can get very lonely and hard over there but I am searching for something greater. Language is a huge issue but I can understand now. I have picked up enough that I can move around the city without a translator. If you have to prove something you have to stay away from here and dirty politics,” says Seema.

Seema was in India earlier this month for the Federation Cup, her first competition in the country in over two years. She was favourite to bag the gold until Punjab’s Kamalpreet produced a record-breaking throw in excess of 65metres. Seema, although disappointed, accepted the second spot gracefully. The athlete feels it was a decent attempt, considering she was coming from a cold region like Krasnodar (southwestern Russia), one of her three training bases.

“I am coming from a region where it is extremely cold so I consider my throw (62.64m) nothing less than a 65m throw,” she says.

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India’s Seema Punia competes in the women’s discus throw final at Carrara Stadium during the Commonwealth Games on the Gold Coast, Australia, Thursday, April 12, 2018. (AP Photo/Dita Alangkara)

‘I couldn’t breathe’

It was around April last year when the tall and well-built athlete was brought down to her knees by the coronavirus. Dizziness and a fever of 103 Fahrenheit were telling signs.

“I felt like my head was spinning and had a severe fever. I asked my trainer not to come to my room. It was a dreadful feeling. Like going through hell. Then health professionals arrived to take blood samples. The test proved I was positive,” the athlete recalls.

Getting back in shape felt like a herculean task for the athlete, who used to train a minimum of six hours a day before the virus hit her. “I would be left breathless after climbing a flight of stairs and there was this constant headache. Things eased slowly and I would have been really happy had I qualified for the Olympic Games here,” says Seema, a two-time Olympian who has a combined tally of six medals in the Commonwealth Games and Asian Games.

Despite the struggles, Seema feels meditation and spirituality helped in the healing process. “I read a lot of books on Osho and spirituality. I am a huge follower of Osho and hear his sermons regularly. It brings me a lot of peace and tranquillity which helped me get through these testing times,” she says.

Seema’s decision to start training in Russia back in 2016 had raised eyebrows because of the doping record of athletes from the country. Seema currently trains at three centres in Sochi, Maykop and Krasnodar under coach Vitaliy Pishchalnikov, a former thrower. Seema also works closely with physio and fitness trainer Bella who travelled to Patiala for the Federation Cup.

“We have spent a lot of time together and she is like a sister to me. Since I am a local, I help her with anything she needs. Our way of having fun is ensuring good recovery and eating well. Seema is very hardworking and we train 24X7. No holidays and no alcohol. Never,” says Bella, who was seen interacting with the Indian athlete in Russian.

Seema is also much leaner and fitter thanks to changes in her eating habits. Red meat and a lot of veggies are what she survives on. “No sugar, almost zero carbs. I have developed a gluten allergy so no bread as well. At this age I need to be very careful of what I consume,” says Seema.

seema ppunia discus throw Seema Punia during the Athletics Championships in Patiala. (PTI Photo)

‘Society needs to change’

Although Seema has been away from home for a long time now, she is never homesick. “I had a marriage which ended. We separated in 2016-17, and now there isn’t much left to think about or miss about India,” she says.

“Giving up is not a choice. You have been given this one life, and you have to make the most of it. I want to be a beacon of hope for other women. There are so many oppressed women in our society. If you go to the interiors of Haryana you will see the plight of women. Now all I think about is throwing better.”

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